K&I Diner – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The famous K&I Diner, Serving Albuquerque Since 1960

In 1960, Albuquerque’s population reached 201,189, more than doubling the city’s tally from the 1950 census. The start of a new decade began an era of expansion, a construction boom in which the burgeoning city began experiencing unprecedented growth. A proliferation of shopping centers was built to serve new neighborhoods.  Albuquerque was not yet overrun by horrendous, copycat chain restaurants; family owned and operated mom-and-pop dining establishments–like the K&I Diner–were (and still are) your best bet for a great meal.

1960 (March 2nd to be exact) was also the year in which Irene Warner opened Grandma’s K&I Diner (named for her daughter Kay Hess and herself) in the heart of Albuquerque’s industrial district in the far South Valley. She ran the eatery with her family for 39 years until her death at age 82 in 1999.  The matronly Irene was a fixture at her restaurant, a kind and gentle woman who made everyone welcome at her restaurant home. With a pronounced Southern drawl, she and her family kept things lively, often addressing their faithful patrons by “honey” or “sugar.”

The ghostly image in the background isn't Travis, the mysterious customer for whom the K&I Diner's most famous entree is named. It's Bill Resnik, the artist who painted this masterpiece displayed in the front dining room of the K&I.

The ghostly image in the background isn’t Travis, the mysterious customer for whom the K&I Diner’s most famous entree is named. It’s Bill Resnik, the artist who painted this masterpiece displayed in the front dining room of the K&I.

The restaurant has undergone several ownership changes since Grandma Warner passed away, but other than  some polish and veneer, pretty much left everything the same. For that Albuquerque diners are grateful.  The decor features antique brickerbrack donated by customers. Old stoves, a Pepsi dispenser (from back when a bottle of cold Pepsi cost ten cents), tube-operated radios and more eye-catching antiques will keep your interest while some placards may surprise you at how ribald humor was fifty or sixty years ago. One placard reads “big busted women float better.”

Ask anyone who’s been in Albuquerque for a few years and they can all recount their favorite memories of dining at the K&I. Most of them probably involve the “Travis,” a bean and seasoned beef burrito topped with cheese and chile then piled high with French fries. It’s an unlikely combination, but also a uniquely New Mexican one. The Travis is available in five sizes, the descriptions below of which are taken from the menu:

This behemoth is a quarter Travis.

This behemoth is a quarter Travis.

    • Travis on A Silver Platter – You’d better bring lots of friends to attempt this. Of course, if you can eat it by yourself in an hour or less and we mean ALL of it, it’s free.  It weighs over eight pounds and has been surmounted by only two people in the 40 years plus that it’s been available.
    • Full TravisEven the biggest of appetites would have a hard time finishing this one.
    • Half TravisIt can be done, but you’d better be happy.
    • Quarter TravisThis is the most popular size (pictured above), but some still need a to-go box.
    • Wimp TravisFor those who just don’t feel up to the challenge.

The Travis on a Silver Platter is a full six pounds and the platter on which it is served is big enough for the Thanksgiving turkey. A Wimp Travis is big enough for most people, but most men will order at least a quarter Travis or they risk being drummed out of the XY chromosome club.  As it approaches your table, your first inclination will be to wonder where the burrito is.  The mountain of fries covers every other component on the dish.  Like a treasure-hunter, you’ll have to get through several layers of fries before you get to the burrito.  The fries are excellent.

A half Travis

When he traveled to Albuquerque for a taping of the Travel Channel’s Man vs Food Nation (which aired for the first time on June 22nd, 2011) a stop at Grandma Warner’s K&I Diner was a must for host Adam Richman.  No longer an active competitor in man’s quest to eat ridiculous amounts of food, Richman recruited three Albuquerque residents–all named Travis–to test their gurgitator’s mettle against the Travis on a Silver Platter:  three flour tortillas, beef and beans, sausage-infused red chile and shredded Cheddar.  Once folded over, the burrito is covered over with green chile, cheese and a lettuce-tomato garnish  topped with a mountain of French fries.  Richman called the challenge an “indomitable feat of manhood,” and “maybe the hardest challenge we’ve ever shown.”

Given an hour to consume the entire platter’s worth of food, the three Travises (a student at UNM, a meteorologist for a local television station and a professional bull rider) were unable to surmount the challenge despite the urging of the crowd (which included UNM cheerleaders and Lobo Louie) and Richman’s encouragement.

Bert’s Mess

My own personal memories of the K&I Diner also involve the Travis. While stationed at Kirtland in the early 1980s, we used to take the dreaded Inspector General (IG) staff to the K&I and challenge them to finish a full Travis. Our hopes were that the IG staffers would get so full that drowsiness would set in after lunch and they wouldn’t be quite as nit-picky in their assessments. This usually worked with new staffers, but veteran IG members ultimately figured out our ploy. Still, they all enjoyed the K&I Diner as much as we did and made it a regular stop during their inspection tours of Kirtland.

Today, Air Force personnel (and no doubt, the infamous IG) still frequent the K&I Diner which despite four separate dining areas is usually packed for both breakfast and lunch. Newcomers with the gumption to try still think they have the mettle to consume an entire Travis, but invariably fail miserably (coincidentally miserable is the gastronomic state of anyone who succeeds).

The Leo

Elise Hunnicutt, a Del Norte High graduate now residing in deepest, darkest Westchester, New York shares one of her favorite K&I and Travis memories from the winter of 1982.  “The K&I was a favorite lunchtime stop for me when I worked for the Pepsi bottler in Albuquerque. I took two co-workers there one chilly day and instructed them on the fine points of ordering the Travis special. At the time, you didn’t use the word “Travis” when ordering, instead just proclaiming “Quarter” or “Half!” Your waitress would then call out the orders to the guys doing the cooking behind the counter. On this particular trip, I ordered my usual quarter. The first of my colleagues, obviously not embracing my guidance, slammed his fist on the table and demanded a Half. My other companion had no interest in the Travis and asked instead for a cheeseburger. Our waitress turned quickly toward the kitchen and said, “Quarter and a Half! And would someone please go down to Blake’s and get this idiot a cheeseburger?”

My friend Bill Resnik recalls the time he goaded a “Travis virgin” into ordering a full Travis. The behemoth platter arrived minutes later with a Dum Dum sucker on top. The acid tongue (but with a heart of gold) waitress presented it with “here you go, sucker!” Another time he asked the waitress how the meatloaf was that particular day.  The waitress’s retort, “I wouldn’t have it if I were you.  Grandma made it.”  Grandma was notorious for putting any leftover she could find into the lasagna–including lime jello.  After about three visits, the wait staff got to know you and treated you like a sibling.

Chicken Fried Steak, Two Eggs and Hashed Browns

The days of verbal jousting with the waitresses are long past and some of the restaurant’s personality left with Irene’s family and staff, but the K&I is and always will be, a memorable restaurant. Several local restaurants (Hurricane’s and Twisters come to mind) have attempted to duplicate the Travis and while some claim the pretenders are just as good, K&I veterans will vehemently defend the Travis as an incomparable original. In 1980, the Travis was trademarked, but that hasn’t stopped the pretenders.

According to local legend, the Travis was born when a frequent visitor (in true Western fashion, embellishments say it was a mysterious stranger) to the K&I asked for a burrito with everything on it but the kitchen sink. That’s what he got! The K&I Diner serves more than the Travis. Breakfast and lunch portions can best be described as “heaping” with daily specials available every day of the week. Over the years, the diner has added several other unique entrees in which piles of French fries are the topper, but none have approached the legendary status of the Travis. 

Chiles Rellenos with Fries

2 March 2011: “Bert’s Mess” is a pile of hot, crisp French fries topped with chunks of ham, bacon and sausage  (the triumvirate of porcine perfection) then smothered with red or green chile and topped with two eggs, any style.  The chile, as chile is apt to do, varies in piquancy almost from day-to-day.  There are days in which the chile has the bite of a bell pepper.  Fortunately each table has several heat-generating condiments such as Cholula Hot Sauce and Tabasco Sauce.  Even if you consider it sacrilege to desecrate New Mexico green or red chile by adulterating it with other hot sauces, both Cholula and Tabasco go very well with the fries.  Forget the ketchup.

28 April 2007: The “Leo,” ostensibly named for another loyal customer is a plate piled high with French fries and topped with seasoned beef, cheese and your choice of red or green chile.  About the only thing missing from these calorie overachiever’s dream is an angioplasty.  It should come standard.  The cheese is like a molten melted blanket which covers the entirety of the other ingredients with only a few fries rearing their delicious tops.  French Canadians have their poutine; New Mexicans would rather have The Leo.  Fries and cheese can’t be bested.

Seven year old Stevie Sunday attempts to put a dent on a K&I pancake

12 February 2016: Being a Catholic eating at K&I Diner on a Lenten Friday means having to abstain from meat.  Few things in life are as torturous as watching your dining companion indulge on a Half Travis (which is replete with delicious seasoned beef) when you can’t have one.  Sure the K&I Diner has plenty of entrees sans carne, but when you’ve got your heart set on a Travis, nothing else will do.  Not even the K&I’s chile rellenos, two housemade chile rellenos smothered with your choice of red or green chile and served with beans and fries with a tortilla on the side.  Admittedly, my longing for a Travis would have been minimized had the green chile been at least a little piquant, but it was so wimpy I had to add several shakes of Tabasco sauce to wake it up (and you should never have to adulterate green chile).  Note to self: don’t visit the K&I during Lent.

2 March 2011: The K&I Diner’s chicken fried steak breakfast is one of the best of its kind found this side of Texas.  The chicken fried steak is at least half an inch thick, not some thinly-pounded, boot leather-tough slab as you’re apt to find in other Albuquerque eateries.  It’s covered in a peppered white gravy and is served with two eggs, a pile of hashed browns and sourdough bread toast on the side.  It’s a prodigious breakfast not for the faint of heart.  The chicken fried steak cuts easily, a very good sign and it’s not breaded so thickly that you have to send out a search party to find the actual beef.  Best of all, it’s very good.

For more than 55 years, the K&I Diner’s formula of atmosphere, quick and friendly service and hearty portions has proven successful. It has stood the test of time and is an American classic in the finest sense.

K&I Diner
2500 Broadway, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 243-1881
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 12 February 2016
# OF VISITS: 11
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Travis, The Leo, Bert’s Mess, Pancakes, Chicken Fried Steak, Chiles Rellenos

K & I Diner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Frontier Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Frontier Restaurant, a UNM area institution, but is it the “quintessential New Mexican restaurant.”

Most college and university areas have at least one restaurant that transcends the “student hang-out” label to become a popular dining destination among all demographics, whether or not the diners matriculated at the nearby institution of higher learning. In Albuquerque that dining destination is the Frontier Restaurant. In its forty plus years of serving the Duke City, the Frontier has gone beyond providing the quintessential college eatery experience. Some contend it may well be the quintessential New Mexican restaurant.

Serving Albuquerque since February, 1971, the commodious, barn-like Frontier Restaurant occupies half a city block (quite remarkable considering it started out as a small, one room eatery), seats more than 300 patrons and features an impressive gallery quality art collection which includes several portraits of John Wayne, a favorite of the owners (for whom the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning has named a gallery). The Frontier is a place to see and be seen. Everyone from UNM students to celebrities (in Albuquerque this is primarily the local television news media) and Lobo athletes frequents the Frontier.

Long lines typify dining at the Frontier Restaurant.

Long lines typify dining at the Frontier Restaurant.

The Frontier is the brainchild of Larry and Dorothy Rainosek, transplants from Austin, Texas, who have become among Albuquerque’s most altruistic citizens, contributing to a variety of causes (such as the University of New Mexico, New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and The Albuquerque Museum). The Rainoseks, who also own the city’s four Golden Pride restaurants, didn’t really know about New Mexico’s red and green chile when they moved to the Land of Enchantment, but they learned quickly. Larry’s brother owns Gil’s Broiler (nice name), San Marco’s oldest restaurant which serves something called the “Manske Roll,” a butter-drenched sweet roll that inspired the Frontier Restaurant’s own fabled roll.

The Frontier is a restaurant in which memories are made and long held onto. Just as citizens of my generation remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, practically everyone in Albuquerque remembers their very first visit to the Frontier. It’s wholly unlike any other restaurant in the Duke City–an institution, a Route 66 landmark on historic Central Avenue and a bastion of inexpensive, but good food (it’s not hoity toity enough to be called cuisine).

The Frontier's western art collection features several paintings of John Wayne.

The Frontier’s western art collection features several paintings of John Wayne.

The Frontier has long been a refuge for UNM students, generations of which have studied long into the night in relative quiet (compared to a dorm room) and safety. For nearly two decades, it served studious or hungry patrons 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In October, 2006, operating hours were scaled down because fighting often ensued among drunken revelers who got the munchies after their favorite watering holes closed down.

They also keep diners well fed–feeding some 4,000 people on weekend mornings (200 to 300 “covers” per hour). The Frontier is staffed by some 170 employees, all of whom are in constant motion to keep up with the lines of hungry diners. Those diners queue five or six deep from the entrance to the long order counters, but the staff keeps things moving smoothly (Disney could learn a thing or two). The menu lists fifty-some items, mainly New Mexican food, burgers and sandwiches.

The world famous Frontier Roll

The world famous Frontier Roll

In July, 2009, USA Today published an article entitled “Ten Great Places to Eat Regionally, Eat Well.” Author Michael Stern who co-wrote the definitive 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late listed his ten favorite restaurants. On that list was the Frontier Restaurant. Considering Stern has dined at tens of thousands of restaurants, to be singled out as one of his ten favorite is a lofty accolade indeed.

On the 500 Things… tome, the Frontier Restaurant’s carne adovada was listed as the third best carne adovada in America. Calling it “the great bargain carne adovada–no less delicious for its $1.99 price–is a burrito at the Frontier in Albuquerque,” it was described as having “just enough chile-infused meat intense enough to turn the tortilla that wraps it the color of sunset.” The book also named the Frontier’s huevos rancheros as the second best among the genre throughout the Southwest.

Green chile stew at the Frontier Restaurant (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

Green chile stew at the Frontier Restaurant (Courtesy of Sergio Salvador)

When he traveled through Albuquerque for a taping of the Travel Channel’s Man vs Food Nation (which aired for the first time on June 22nd, 2011) Adam Richman stopped at the Frontier for the Bonanza Burger, the Frontier’s version of a green chile cheeseburger crafted from two quarter-pound patties, Cheddar cheese and bacon topped with New Mexico’s favorite fruit-vegetable–our beloved green chile. He called the Frontier “the go-to place for green chile smothered grub.” While the Bonanza Burger did not garner enough votes to make the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in 2011, its nationwide exposure may put it over the top on the next trail.

In honor of Richman’s visit, the Frontier created the “Adam Bonanza” burger named for the affable Man Vs. Food Nation host. This burger behemoth is constructed from two quarter-pound grilled beef patties, double cheese, double green chile and double bacon. It’s one of my very favorite burgers (top five) in Albuquerque. Though Richman contended that the Bonanza burger “kicks and burns you with its chile,” the chile is rather mild though very flavorful with fine roasted qualities. Richman was spot-on when he said “it’s an excellent quality bacon cheeseburger, but the green chile takes it to a whole other level.” The beef is prepared at medium-well, but still manages to be juicy and delicious with a smoky grilled flavor that marries wonderfully with the bacon.

The Adam Bonanza (named for Man Vs. Food Nation host Adam Richman): double meat, double American cheese, double green chile, double bacon

As popular and famous as the Frontier has become among visitors to our fair state, no one has as high a regard for the Frontier as the generations of locals who have frequented it for four decades plus. Readers of Local IQ, Albuquerque’s Intelligent Alternative, have voted it the Duke City’s best for “late night eats,” “best cheap eats,” “best green chile” and “best breakfast burrito.”

On Chowhound.com one local even called the Frontier “the quintessential New Mexican” restaurant. It’s a sentiment echoed by callers during Ryan Scott’s pioneering and much-missed Break the Chain radio program. To detractors (and there aren’t as many of those as there are aficionados) that’s akin to saying Pace’s Picante sauce is New Mexico’s quintessential salsa. I’m of the mind that from an experiential perspective it is definitely the quintessential university area restaurant in the Duke City, but won’t go any further.

Labeling piquant goodness out of a cauldron onto a bounteous Frontier burrito

It’s not just Local IQ and Chowhound readers who esteem the Frontier’s breakfast burrito so highly. In its September, 2011 issue the Albuquerque The Magazine staff undertook the ambitious challenge of finding the very best breakfast burrito in the Duke City. The winner of the “Breakfast Burrito Brawl” turned out to be the Frontier Restaurant which on a typical Saturday or Sunday can serve as many as 800 of these tortilla-encased treasures.

It’s no mystery that another “local” held the Frontier in very high regard. In fact, legendary award-winning mystery author Tony Hillerman more than once made the restaurant a setting in his Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mystery novels. Hillerman also wrote unabashedly about his love for the Frontier in the November, 2005 edition of New Mexico Magazine.”

Enchiladas with the Frontier's chopped green chile and red chile

Enchiladas with the Frontier’s chopped green chile and red chile

Aside from the aforementioned carne adovada, huevos rancheros and now the Bonanza Burger, there are several entrees for which the Frontier is known, but the item most frequently mentioned as a favorite seems to be the fabled Frontier rolls. Served hot, buttery and gooey with a cinnamon sugar glaze, they pack a day’s worth of teeth-decaying, waist-expanding calories, the kind you enjoy consuming. They’re among the very best cinnamon rolls in the Land of Enchantment.

Pundits and first-timers also agree on the green chile stew–it’s easily among the most popular in town. Served from a steaming cauldron, it has a piquant bite locals appreciate. Alas, the green chile stew is served with paper thin tortillas prepared production line fashion before your eyes by a machine. Considering the quantities of tortillas served daily at The Frontier, it’s certainly more efficient than using the more tradition methods employed by New Mexican abuelitas for generations. No assembly line contraption, however, can match the aroma or taste of hand-formed tortillas off-the-comal.

Pancakes with syrup

Pancakes with syrup

If you order enchiladas or burritos, you’re asked if you’d like them with the green chile stew, but you can also have them with the restaurant’s chopped green chile or better yet, Christmas style. The Frontier’s version of “Christmas style” doesn’t necessarily mean a demarcation in which a clear boundary is established between the red and the green chile. As shown in the image above, you can’t tell where the red chile ends and the green chile stops. Trust me, that’s not a bad thing. The amalgam makes for an interesting flavor combination of medium piquancy.

The menu is segmented into breakfast, platters, hamburgers, sandwiches, New Mexican food and bulk items (like six-packs of the aforementioned Frontier rolls). There literally is something for everyone. The fresh squeezed orange juice is some of the best I’ve had anywhere–wholly unlike the doctored, pulpy and cloying stuff you buy in grocery stores. Orange after Florida sunshine nourished orange is squeezed into a refreshing juicy goodness. The Frontier’s hot chocolate simply makes you wish it was winter year round. Breakfast is served all day long–and a day’s worth of carbs and calories is what you might have if you order even a short stack of pancakes. These are thick, fluffy orbs made golden brown and just beckoning for butter and syrup.

A BLT on a tortilla

Whether or not the Frontier Restaurant is Albuquerque’s “quintessential New Mexican restaurant,” can certainly be debated. I would suggest doing so over an Adam Bonanza burger and a Frontier roll chased down by fresh-squeezed orange juice.

The Frontier Restaurant
2400 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 262-1848
LATEST VISIT: 23 June 2012
# OF VISITS: 17
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Frontier Rolls, Green Chile Stew, Orange Juice, Hot Chocolate, Adam Bonanza

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